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Brave in Its Transformerness

By: Midge Goldberg
April 24, 2019

he first thing I liked about Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is that it is “an epic tale of intrigue and mystery and adventure and near death and actual death.” The second thing I liked is that the narrator tells you that. The third thing I liked is that you could decide, in the midst of today’s social media-centric political and cultural turmoil, that April and her friends (and the author) have an agenda—except you’d be wrong, and April tells you that too: “If you get anything out of this, ideally it won’t be you being more or less on one side or the other, but simply understanding that I am (or at least was) human.”

 An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is, first of all, a good story. The story is told in the first person by April May, who includes you in her life so naturally you feel as though you are another friend in her group of friends. May is a hip 23-year-old scraping by in NYC who accidentally comes across a ten-foot-tall sculpture of a Transformer wearing a suit of samurai armor in front of a Chipotle in the middle of the night on a street in Manhattan. She calls her friend Andy, they make a fun video, and post it on YouTube. It goes viral. April is catapulted into social media fame as the world learns that there are 60 Carls—April’s name for the sculpture—in cities around the world. April and her friends solve intricate puzzles involving, among other things, Queen lyrics, chemistry, and logic, both in the real world and the dream world that accompanies Carl.  At the same time, another group—the Defenders—springs up that promotes caution and castigates April for initiating contact with Carl. As her internet fame grows, April launches herself into an ever-escalating battle of rhetoric with the Defenders, some of whom respond with violence. The story becomes a race to see which group will solve Carl’s mystery first, a series of puzzles that require the cooperation and knowledge of people from all over the world. Information is shared and hidden, and the intentions of the Carls are hotly debated as the two groups become more and more polarized.

Hank Green has channeled narrator April May so perfectly that she seems as real as the cool geek-nerd friends my kids had in high school. He captures her humor, her sarcasm, even the pacing of her speech, as she “introduces” Carl in that first video:

“His icy stare is somehow comforting, it’s like, look, none of us has our lives figured out…not even this ten-foot-tall metal warrior. The weight of life getting you down? Don’t worry…you’re insignificant! Do I feel safer with him watching over me? I do not!…” A couple, headed home after a long night, walk by while I say this, looking over their shoulders more at the camera than at the giant freaking ROBOT.

April, for all her cynicism and sarcasm, retains the ability to be amazed and honest about herself, evident from the first time she sees Carl:

It was stunningly done. I paused for maybe five seconds before shivering both in the cold and in the gaze of the thing and then walking on.

And then I. Felt. Like. The. Biggest. Jerk.…

Here in the middle of the sidewalk is a piece of art that was a massive undertaking, an installation that the artist worked on, possibly for years, to make people stop and look and consider. And here I am, hardened by big-city life and mentally drained by hours of pixel pushing, not even giving something so magnificent a second glance.

Hank Green convincingly breaks the fourth wall throughout the book. Even while April is “smart, kind, and snarky” to her audience of fans, she is honest with the reader about herself. As she describes her questionable actions towards her girlfriend, she says, “I’m telling you this because I want you not to hate me. You’re probably going to hate me in a couple of pages.” It takes a little while to realize that April is recounting her own story from some point in the future. If I had to find something to complain about, it’s that that point resides somewhere in a sequel, but I suppose that just means I’m eager to keep reading. The author has done his job well.

It would be easy to think Green uses April to represent a side and make some political point—that it’s simply a liberal book by a liberal author. It probably is, to some extent. There’s a woman president, older and stern but concerned. There’s a schism between two groups that seems to reflect our current political scene. But Green doesn't let April be so easily pigeonholed. She repeatedly reminds us, the readers, not to fall into the trap that she herself has fallen into. Throughout, April internally expresses the same doubts her detractors are saying out loud. The leader of the Defenders challenges April: “But why, in the face of this immense threat, would we assume the best? Wouldn’t it make sense to exercise even a little caution?” The president herself scolds April about “communicating on behalf of my country and my species and my planet instead of letting someone qualified and authorized make that call.” And April knows that: “Frankly, I knew deep in my heart that it was a selfish and foolish thing to do, and I didn’t want them to talk me out of it.” As the tension escalates between the two groups, April rallies her side and demonizes the Defenders. But she tells us, the readers:

I distilled a diverse group of individuals down to a few of their beliefs. Those beliefs were based on fear, and so all my arguments began and ended with the same thought: you’re all cowards. I didn’t say those exact words out loud, but they heard them anyway. The people who supported Carl and supported me heard it too, and they loved it. They wanted me to say it all the time. Reasoned, caring conversations that considered the complexity of other perspectives didn’t get views. Rants did. Outrage did. Simplicity did. So, simple, outraged rants is what I gave people.

Green is determined to get the point across that discussion is better than ranting, by both sides. Andy gets the last word when he says, “I don’t think any of us are blameless when we all, more and more often, see ourselves not as members of a culture but as weapons in a war.” As the story closes, Andy gives a talk to a live audience, saying, “Speaking to humans was so vastly different from tweeting or even making videos…. We all had to sit in the same set of thoughts for over an hour.”

Hank Green gained fame through the internet himself, becoming famous through various internet ventures, including Vlogbrothers, with his brother, novelist John Green; The Lizzie Bennet Diaries; and SciShow. And just as with April, fame can play interesting twists. When I told my kids, who had loved Hank and John’s projects as teenagers, how great this book was, they rolled their eyes and said OF COURSE Hank Green had written a book about a TRANSFORMER statue wearing SAMURAI ARMOR, and OF COURSE there were science puzzles to solve. It was as if Hank Green’s own fame got in the way of their seeing it as a good story. But as April herself describes Carl, this book is

so unlike other things I’d seen. And brave in its ‘Transformerness. …’ No one wants to be compared to something that’s mainstream popular. That’s the worst of all possible fates. But there was much more to this piece than that.

In this case, my ignorance paid off, because nothing stood in the way of my enjoying this remarkable story.